Invincible was always going to be a tricky show to pull off. Based on the early-2000s Image comic by Robert Kirkman and Cory Walker, the Amazon Prime adult animated series enters a media landscape that’s markedly different from two decades ago. Its three-episode premiere, while intriguing, seemed unable to strike the right tone with its animated gore, especially since the show takes a straight-faced approach to its satirical source material. The whole endeavor felt less like a response to the existing superhero zeitgeist — the way the comics were at the time — and more like just another cookie-cutter cape story with a few violent flourishes. However, the show began to find its footing as it went on, one episode at a time.
By the time the first season reached its eighth and final entry, it managed to convincingly earn its Season 2 and 3 renewal, going out on an incredible high note, thanks to both its unique action and its character-centric gravitas. All in all, it’s pretty great.
The show, like the comic, doesn’t play coy about its Marvel and DC influences. Lead character Mark Grayson (Steven Yeun) spends much of the season caught up in Spider-Man-esque dilemmas, as a high schooler spread thin between his civilian and superhero lives. To add to his already full plate, he also happens to be the son of Omni-Man/Nolan Grayson (J.K. Simmons), a mustached Superman archetype. When Mark finally begins manifesting abilities of his own, he takes up the mantle of Invincible and begins finding his way as a novice crime-fighter. However, in this world, superheroes are a dime a dozen — in fact, several of the show’s characters are based on the designs of the Justice League — and Omni-Man, the world’s strongest and most famous superhero, casts an incredibly long shadow. For Mark, it would appear that with great power comes great expectations.
If the premise sounds as simple as “What if Spider-Man was Superman’s son?” then a major reveal at the end of the first episode complicates matters sufficiently. The show, it turns out, is also a murder mystery of sorts. It ropes a number of colorful characters into its steadily unfolding plot, from part-Rorschach, part-Hellboy demon detective Damian Darkblood (Clancy Brown), to duplicitous government spook Cecil Stedman (Walton Goggins) and his S.H.I.E.L.D.-like outfit, the Global Defense Agency, or the G.D.A. Even Mark’s mother Debbie (Sandra Oh) gets involved, and plays a much more active part in the story than her comic counterpart.
While the first three episodes meander a bit, they’re at their most interesting when they focus on this mystery element. However, starting with episode 4, the show seems to undergo a stylistic metamorphosis. It begins to feel more fun and energetic without sacrificing its emotional core, and by episode 5, the series begins to feel fully-formed, not only telling stories that evoke 1970s superhero comics and their transition to more serious social subjects, but using its over-the-top violence in ways that feel pointed and impactful.
The sixth episode, however, takes a bit of a tonal detour and falls back on some of the bad habits in those early episodes. A problem plaguing the show is that it occasionally relies on stilted, dryly edited dialogue scenes to deliver exposition and emotional information. These sequences can be a bit of a drag, and it doesn’t help that the all-star cast largely comprises famous screen actors without much voice acting experience. The result often feels rote, like the audience is sitting in on a table read rather than being told a meaningful story. However, as the show progresses, the visual storytelling becomes more polished, employing live-action cinematic techniques like rack-focuses to really bring out the subtext. This especially stands out in episode 5, during a simple dinner sequence between Mark, Nolan, and Debbie, who are all keeping information from each other and wrestling with important decisions. When the show tightens up its animation, it feels laser-focused.
Episode 6 takes a bit of a tonal detour and falls back on some of the bad habits in those early episodes.
The main cast is rounded out by Zazie Beetz as Amber, Mark’s romantic interest and a headstrong character who challenges his commitment to his cause, and by Gillian Jacobs as Atom Eve, a fellow teenage superhero and eventual third wheel, who’s forced to blaze her own path. There are a few other highlights along the way, like Mahershala Ali as Titan, a thoughtful street-level super-criminal who helps expand Mark’s worldview, and Ezra Miller as the cackling mad scientist D.A. Sinclair, although few of the show’s performances hold a candle to Mark Hamill as Art Rosenbaum, tailor to the superheroes, Nolan’s long-time friend, and a man who seems to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders. Admittedly, Art doesn’t play a large part in the plot, but Hamill — a performer whose career in animation predates even Star Wars — voice-acts circles around much of the cast, putting his entire vocal toolbox on display for a relatively simple part.
The show is also occasionally bogged down by a secondary mystery, which pales in comparison to the central plot. It involves a couple of Mark’s fellow superheroes on the Teen Team, a lively group reminiscent of The Teen Titans and the Young Avengers, but it’s scattered across the season in the form of mid-episode hints (if not mid-credit stingers), and it’s unable to form a solid narrative base in the process.
However, the show is also strong enough to overcome most of these problems by its final two episodes. They play like a single, extended action climax, and by the time the finale begins, even the season’s inadequacies begin to feel worthwhile. The eighth episode is one worth waiting for, not only for the way it evokes real-world images of terrorism and natural disasters — its violence is uniquely disturbing for western animation! — but because of its poignant storytelling, which brings Mark face to face with his ultimate physical and emotional challenges. Without getting into too much detail, it has a scene involving Mark, Nolan, and a train collision that’s both emotionally riveting and visually jaw-dropping. You’ll know it when you see it.
Mark and Nolan are particularly interesting reflections of one another, as superheroes caught up in vastly different narratives of dual identity
Invincible’s first season has plenty of memorable action beats (more so in its second half), but what makes it stand out amongst the existing superhero crop is the careful way it peels back the layers to characters like Nolan and Debbie. Mark’s story, meanwhile, remains firmly in simple and familiar territory, but that’s hardly a point against it, since the show constantly juggles well-worn teenage superhero tales with more complex adult stories. Mark and Nolan are particularly interesting reflections of one another, as superheroes caught up in vastly different narratives of dual identity, which keep colliding and diverging at key points throughout the season. Despite the show’s many detours into genre territory — from dragons to outer space to alternate dimensions — what gradually becomes clear is that, at its core, Invincible is a story about friends, family, and secrets. It just happens to be wrapped in a shiny, blood-soaked package.
After a shaky start, Invincible’s first season gradually finds its footing, and eventually ends on a stunning high. Based on the early 2000s Image comic, the show combines familiar superhero tropes with unexpected gore and moving character dynamics, resulting in the year’s most surprising superhero series.Follow us on Google News
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